What can you do about terrorists?

ISIS has become the scariest threat of this year. But our fear occupies far too much of our minds and politics, and both our individual and political reactions only make things worse. What we need is not more bombs, but more understanding. This is not a war. This is an issue of humans being selfish and blind, and everyone thinking they are the good guys, including you.

Stop calling this a war

After the Paris attacks, several politicians were talking about a war against ISIS. Language matters, language shapes reality. The way we frame ISIS will have a large impact on how we attempt to solve this problem.

Isis has formed a state within Syria and Iraq by controlling the oil industry inside its territories, but its cross-border brand of terrorism is not warlike. Killing people is terrifying but is insufficient in war: you must destroy infrastructure and degrade supplies, as the Nazis did in the 1940s by bombing the east London docks. Terrorism has its own logic. It fosters fear far in excess of the danger it presents and is a marketing campaign for recruits. It does what its planners want. But set against natural events such as earthquakes, and the ebb and flow of industry and trade, even large attacks are economically minor.” [Financial Times]


Why did Osama Bin-Laden attack the World Trade Center in 2001? Because he knew it would blast away our trust in Muslims and lead to counter attacks, which would in turn justify hate for America and motivate more terrorists. Of course he was right. The tensions between Islam and the West spiraled out of control and all we granted our Muslim citizens was endless scrutiny and misunderstanding. The West ignited the ‘War on Terrorism’ and what is the result after 14 years…?

Bombs is exactly what terrorists want

It’s tempting to think that we can defeat ISIS by bombing them away. But bombs simply don’t work. In a different post I summarized three mains reasons (read it here):

  1. You need ground troops
  2. No one wants to get involved
  3. Assad is a maniac

But the biggest problem with bombs is that it fuels even more terrorism:

As with Osama bin Laden on 9/11, Isis wants the world to go berserk, declare emergencies, tear up freedoms, persecute moderate Muslims and bomb Muslim cities. By capitulating to these desires, the West has vastly increased the power of the terror — and the likelihood of imitation.

War is a conflict between states. The killings did not threaten the integrity of any state. That threat comes only from how we respond, by playing the terrorist’s game. This week’s treatment of Isis validates its claim to be waging jihad. Why should the west offer it victory, when we should be strong enough to offer quiet contempt? [The Guardian]

Talking about terrorism in terms of war occupies way too much of our worry and misguides our actions. ISIS cannot be bombed away, because even if they’re all dead, a different terrorist group will rise from the ashes. Terrorism cannot be bombed away, because it’s not a physical but a social construct. Let’s look at that a bit closer.

Why does terrorism exist anyway?

Consider this ridiculously simplified history of the Middle East. In the early 1900s the Europeans came and did what they did best: Imperialism a.k.a. ripping people off and imposing Western politics. After this traumatisation the Middle East started its journey to modernisation. But unlike in Asia, people got nothing in return for giving up their freedom because the Middle Eastern leaders were former military generals who sucked at creating economies. [NY Times]

The Middle East is a region of conflict and systematic illiteracy and poverty. It’s not really surprising that some people are revolting. If you and me disagree with the government we go out on the streets, but chances are pretty high you’ll get your head blown off if you protest against Bashar al-Assad. So it’s also not that surprising that these revolutionists go for terrorism:

“All you need are some explosives and a few small arms, and you can start blowing people up. You can start kidnapping and killing people.” [Dyer] said that this offers benefits for those hoping to build a mass movement to bring down a dictator. [Straight.com]

What‘s important is realising that ISIS is almost a natural consequence of the history of the Middle East, which means you cannot defeat terrorism in the long term unless you deal with it in a balanced perspective.

Why are European muslims joining ISIS?

So if terrorism has come about in the Middle East because of geopolitical circumstances, why are Muslims in Europe attracted to join ISIS? They join Isis because they are Muslim, but not in the way you might think. Consider this statement of what an average European might say:

I tolerate Muslims, but they really have to do a better job at integrating themselves. If they’re not willing to learn the local language and live our way, then why did they come in the first place?’

It’s clear that Muslims feel marginalised in our society and it seems justified to blame Muslims for it. But that’s unfair.

Why blaming Muslims for not integrating is wrong

The first generation immigrants did not come to Europe for fun. They came because they were extremely poor and we needed them in a post-war European crisis. They faced poverty in a foreign country and Europe wanted them to integrate. But integration is a two-way process. Instead, what we really asked them to do is leave behind their old identity and fully become ‘European’ (read ‘white Christians’). This builds up huge pressure and existential challenges, for which often tradition and religion are the only relief. If you lived in a totally different culture where you don’t feel welcome, wouldn’t you also hang on to your home culture as much as possible?

The second generation faced a different existential problem: Am I Moroccan or French? Turkish or German? Identity struggles are normal for every teenager and all of generation Y knows it’s difficult to find your place in the world. I mean what are the answers to ‘who are you?’ and ‘what is your passion?’ Can you imagine how much harder this is if you have two identities that can’t seem to be combined? I have friends who are way more Dutch than me (because they grew up here and I didn’t), but I am blond and white and they are not. So when somebody sees them they ask: where are you from? As if their darker skin color means they can’t really be Dutch.

These same friends also constantly get rejected for jobs, simply because their name is ‘Abdallah’ and not ‘de Jong‘.

Politics is also not your best friend if you are Muslim. Even when politicians try to help Muslims, they do what they think is best, but it’s often not what is actually best. It’s like men deciding over which bra’s are the most comfortable and which ones should be sold. It makes no sense.

Terrorist, made in Europe

Now imagine: You’re poor, you don’t know who you are, your religion is rejected, the government doesn’t hear you, and you can’t a job. Then someone draws a cartoon that makes fun of your religion. The only thing that is a source of safety and familiarity is ridiculed and it makes you sick. But you’re not allowed to be angry or sad about it. No! You have to swallow your pride because this is “freedom” of speech and your opinion doesn’t matter. The fact that someone else’s freedom totally limits your own freedom doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

And then someone comes along and gives your life purpose. While governments try to curb the damage with mass-communication about why someone shouldn’t join Isis, Isis spends hundreds of hours talking to these confused youngsters. “This will be hard, but it will be worth it.”

The men who killed almost 200 people on the streets of Paris and Brussels believed they were fighting the right struggle, and I don’t hate them. How could I? I feel sorry for them. Actually I want to tell them that I am sorry. Sorry for how Europe has not been able to offer them a home.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying my Muslim friends might convert to Isis warriors. What I am saying is that Europe is making it very difficult for European Muslims to feel European, to feel like an equal and respected citizen of their country.

Feeding the bad wolf

The eye-for-an-eye attacks on the terrorist strongholds in the Middle East justify ISIS’ point of view that the West hates Muslims. This wicked cycle fuels the radical ideology that infiltrates the young minds of European Muslims who feel like they belong nowhere. Dealing with ISIS as senseless barbarians does not recognise that ISIS is partly the result of our own discriminating actions.

”They [Western society] teach us to work hard to buy a nice car and nice clothes but that isn’t happiness. I was a third-class human because I wasn’t integrated into a corrupted system. But I didn’t want to be a street gangster. So, I and my friends simply decided to go around and invite people to join Islam. The other Muslim groups in the city just talk. They think a true Muslim state will just rain from heaven on them without fighting and striving hard on the path of Allah”. [NYbooks.com]

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life: “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

That’s the situation of ISIS terrorists. They are not bad humans, or bad because they’re Muslim. They are confused loners whose bad inner wolfs are being stuffed with our systematic misunderstanding and poisoned consumerism.

What’s really disgusting is that some people have made it their job to supply ever bigger dishes to the bad wolf. They simplify a problem and blame one part of the population for it. We call these people populists and they go by the name of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders.

A solution to hate: listening

The days after the Paris attacks many people quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can.

So we drive out ISIS’ hate by showing love. But let’s not pretend that’s easy. Let’s not pretend like we’re all A-class citizens and the only people who need to change are the backcountry racists. Love will only be able to flourish through empathy, and empathy is fucking difficult.

If you actually mean any of this ‘only love can drive out hate’ stuff than it’s time to admit you’re part of the problem. It’s time to start practicing some real empathy for people who don’t seem to make any sense to you.

We have to accept that living in a globalised world means dealing with OTHER people. So unless you want to give up Sushi, Game of Thrones, iPhones, and everything else that globalisation has brought us, you need to accept that you share your place on earth with humans who are different than you. And that means you have to be open for change and truly listen to people who don’t seem to deserve it. Is it frustrating? Of course. Can it be scary? Of course. But it will also be incredibly enriching.

The point is it starts with YOU. Not that racist 50 year old man in your neighbourhood or the Arabic dad who still doesn’t speak Dutch. No. It starts with YOU. You, the person who eats less meat and regularly volunteers at the homeless shelter. You, the person who gets angry about populist politicians and complains that the media ignores the Turkish bombings. It all starts with you my friend, because you are privileged and smart enough to make the first step.

So what can you do about terrorists? Don’t wait for people to integrate. Take the first step towards people who are different and try to understand what they’re going through. In the end it’s that simple, and that difficult.


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